The Power Institute Foundation for Art and Visual Culture

No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art


By Thomas Crow

Winner of the 2018 AAANZ Best Book Prize
Shortlisted for the 2019 Art + Christianity Book Award

[Art is] probably the last remnant of magic we have leftbecause we’ve jettisoned most of the magical beliefs that used to guide human behaviour and perception of the world. But in getting rid of all those things we left ourselves with almost no connection to the unknown.
—Thomas Crow


Thomas Crow’s No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art addresses a disabling blindspot in today’s art-historical inquiry: the failure to take religion seriously. Through exploration of a humble still life by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, No Idols sets the scene for positing an art of divinity without doctrine, or religion against the grain. Crow’s case for a reconsideration of the metaphysical in art is made through analysis of the work of New Zealand artist Colin McCahon and American counterparts Mark Rothko, Robert Smithson, James Turrell and Sister Mary Corita Kent. The collective stature of this tightly selected group of artists, supports the author’s proposal that a religious art, as opposed to ‘a simulacrum of one’, is conceivable for our own time.

Thomas Crow’s No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art is the first title for Power Polemics, a series that puts art hard up against political and personal viewpoints from some of the leading thinkers and writers in the field today.  

About the author

Thomas Crow is the Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. He has written two influential studies of eighteenth-century French painting: Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris and Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France. Subsequent publications, including The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent and the essay collection Modern Art in the Common Culture, examine the later twentieth century, while The Intelligence of Art analyses specific moments in art history as a discipline. His most recent book, The Long March of Pop: Art, Music, and Design 1930–1995, was published in 2015. In the same year he delivered the Andrew Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery, Washington DC, on the ways that the fall of Napoleon changed European art. In 2017, he gave the Paul Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery, London, under the title: ‘Searching for the Young Soul Rebels: Style, Music, and Art in London 1956–1969’. Crow is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a contributing editor at Artforum.


The greatest value of No Idols is in its widest implication: that even if we try, we cannot rid ourselves of the past. Art, stripped of its religious foundations, lives on in a secular world, but ghostly remnants will always remain.
—Pac Pobric, reviewed in The Art Newspaper


... the most surprisingly contemporary thing I have read about art for a long time. 
—Rex Butler, reviewed in Art Forum


... the real substance of the book is in the individual chapters, which are a revelation of what is indeed missing in much of the scholarship on modern religious art and visual culture: consistently invigorating formal analysis as the starting point of historical investigation.
—Sarah Schaefer, reviewed in CAA Reviews


Thomas Crow is one of America’s most distinguished art historians. In this powerful little book, he differs from many of his peers not only in the jargon-free freshness and clarity of his prose, but also in his conviction that ‘there are many ways of mapping a religious sensibility in art, and not all of them entail overt iconography’ ... what Crow calls his ‘paradoxical project… the discovery of valid religious representation in visual art after virtually defining it out of existence’ (p. 108) unfolds with an enviable mixture of art historical precision, theological awareness, and evident empathy for each artist. If relatively little attention is paid to any broader cultural canvas, each artist is vividly portrayed as homo religiosus in their own right.
—Graham Howes, reviewed in Theology


ISBN 978-0909852990
144 pages
20 x 12.5 cm 

50 colour images 



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